More than a half a million people live in the South Bronx and among them live a group of 15 chickens at Mott Haven’s Brook Park Community Garden. They are cared for by volunteers, and the project is changing the relationship between Bronx residents and food.
Community garden members established the Brook Park Bronx Chickens, aka Bronx Chicks, in 2011, says Lily Kesselman, director of the South Bronx Farmers Market and a Bronx Chicks volunteer. A grant from Just Food—an organization that works to increase access to healthy, locally grown food in NYC, especially in underserved neighborhoods—was used to buy the coop building supplies, the first bags of feed and oyster shells, the feeder, and the first dozen hens from the Queens County Farm Museum. Citizens Committee for New York City, another organization focused on helping communities improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods, provided funding for food and supplies the rest of the first year.
Five years later, through the continued commitment of community volunteers, the Bronx Chicks have scratched out a place in the borough’s evolving food scene, which includes new restaurant openings, community food gardens and school programs on nutrition. Each day the hens are taken care of by one volunteer in the morning and one in the evening. Many of the caretakers have had the same shift since 2011. They refill the food and water, clean up the coop and collect the eggs. They take home eggs in exchange for volunteering, although some of the coop’s most avid supporters might not be old enough to operate a stove.
The chickens have visitors every day, and children in particular are drawn to them, Kesselman says, so Bronx Chicks also has youth visits and youth farmers. For children whose parents may have grown up seeing their food go from the farm to the table, the bartering system of Bronx Chicks at the Brook Park garden is an educational space where they can learn how chickens are raised and cared for, creating a connection for them to what they’re eating.
It’s an innovative urban farming concept that comes full circle with the opportunity for residents to also discard their food waste, like scraps from local picnics, at the coop for the hens to enjoy. It sounds like modest means to a group of chickens that has a Twitter account (@bronxchicks). They have been covered by news outlets like DNAinfo and the New York Daily News; were featured in the book Farming the City and were recently part of B-roll for a film.
“We wanted to share the experience of urban chicken keeping and promote local urban agriculture events,” Kesselman says. In addition to a growing resume, the Brook Park chickens also inspired merchandise sold on Etsy by Kesselman, who wanted to create a local brand based in The Bronx. “There are not a lot of wearables that identify with The Bronx, and we wanted to have a fun way to promote the coop. We started printing shirts with a neighbor.”
However, the program is still primarily funded by small grants. In place of paid staff, Bronx Chicks volunteers continue to do outreach and host school visits to engage the community and introduce them to the 15 ladies of the flock, which gets new members approximately every two years as older hens are sent to local farms for retirement. An Adopt-A-Chicken program is planned for the fall, offering naming rights to community members for a $50 donation.